As the Zika virus—which is linked with the shrinking of babies’ brains—spreads rapidly through Latin America, a number of the worst affected countries are urging women to cope—by avoiding pregnancy altogether.
The normally rare and benign virus has now been identified in 19 countries, including the US, where the CDC has confirmed at least eight cases.
Brazil is currently battling the largest Zika outbreak yet, with as many as 1.5 million may be infected. In 2014, the country had no more than 200 cases of microcephaly, but by 2015, the were nearly 3,000 cases. As a result, authorities have cautioned women to not get pregnant for the time being.
Similar warnings have been issued in:
- Jamaica, where the Health Ministry is advising women to delay pregnancy for the next six to 12 months;
- Colombia, where health officials are recommending women postpone pregnancy until the country can “move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus;”
- El Salvador, where after 5,397 cases of the Zika virus, the country’s deputy health minister has called on women to “take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next.”
Christian Lindmeier, a spokesperson from the World Health Organization, tells Quartz that he’s never seen health warnings like these before, which he suggests would “require a huge amount of family planning” to be effective. So far, the US is warning about travel to the affected countries and just urging pregnant women who have traveled to them to stay alert.
The reason for the extreme health warning is that the tropical disease, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has been linked to rise in the neurological disorder called microcephaly. Children born with the debilitating disorder have abnormally small brains and a high risk of early death. While experts stress that the link is still inconclusive, health authorities are taking no chances.
For now, the WHO emphasizes the importance of protecting vulnerable people against mosquito bites—by using repellents, insect screens, closing doors and windows, and wearing long clothing.